In Satum, capital of the Massaid Empire.
Ætariah’s rich carmine eyes blinked. Once. So that her long lashes actually batted the tip of the forged steel pointed in her direction.
The courtesan’s long-legged figure had come around the corner with her long chiffon sari and dress billowing behind her. Sequined and amaranth. Nearly walking into, and skewering herself on the waiting weapon.
But Ætariah did not panic. Did not cry out either in fear or alarm. She sweat, but of course, that was the hot of the desert land to blame. And all the men and the women did perspire there. So too the man who wielded the sword.
Her skin was not swarthy like most in the region, but a shade of red akin to reefs of coral. Covered so extensively in shapes of henna she may as well have been a mural. Her hair, grown barely a quarter inch from her scalp, was dark scarlet. As were her brows. And when her supple crimson lips parted she formed a smile like lime-lit snow.
And the man’s pause— as he gazed into her silky eyes— gave Ætariah prime chance to strike. Slipping her hand to her inner thigh, she seized a kris, and used it to swat away the man’s scimitar.
She would have lunged and cut out the man’s throat next, had he not parried.
Immediately, she knew this man was no simple guard or soldier. He was a warrior. Trained by the sword. Though she had distracted him, it was not enough for the man to misstep.
Ætariah lunged again, but still he parried.
For a moment, the two smiled at one another; surprised and impressed by the other’s skill. And for a moment, Ætariah was lost in his eyes. A fugue of sepia and mystery, and as tortured just as hers.
Then they engaged, and the room was a rout of clashing metal, so loud, the real guards should have come running long ago.
However, the two of them, Ætariah and this masked man, seemed evenly matched in the duel. Until that is, when the man made a false step forward and smashed against her knife with a clout like thunder. Ætariah’s weapon flew from her fingers, and skittered over marble.
Both of them were panting, but the man was quick to return his bayonet afore her, ready to plunge it through her beautiful face. Ætariah closed her eyes and held her breath, bracing for a swift death… that never came. Instead, the man removed his bronze helm, letting it drop to the floor.
“You?” said Ætariah recognising the man.
“Me,” said the man.
Stood before her was a man whose skin was dusky and almost ebony. A foreigner whom she’d briefly met a year ago. Tall. Muscled. And cantankerous. He had long jet hair tied back into a bun, and was showing signs of a beard.
With strong brooding features, naturally rough around the edges; a scarred, yet handsome face, she wondered then as she did now, exactly what and who is he? And why is he here?